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Penn State Student Builds Disaster Relief Vehicle to Help New Orleans Rebuild

It began with a simple idea.

For Aaron Wertman, an architect isn't just someone who designs and builds structures. Rather, an architect is a type of activist, somebody who pursues engagement education through hands-on activity.

Wertman, a 24-year-old working towards his masters of architecture degree at Penn State University, has long had a keen interest in displaced populations and responses to natural disasters.

Now, he is intending to put his beliefs and interests to good use.

For his thesis project, Wertman is transforming a tow-behind mobile home into a sustainable disaster relief vehicle dubbed Apparatus X.

His goal is to complete the renovation of the trailer by this August, when Wertman will graduate from Penn State and travel to New Orleans by himself to work with a local nonprofit community organization called the Lower Ninth Ward Village.

"I believe in starting work in a place that really needs it," Wertman said.

This August will mark the nine-year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans as a Category 3 Hurricane.

And although nearly a decade has passed, and relief has come in many different forms, there is still plenty of rebuilding that needs to be done in the city, specifically the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the hardest-hit areas during Katrina.

In 2000, the U.S. Census reported the population in the Lower Ninth Ward at slightly more than 14,000. The 2010 U.S. Census reported the population at 2,842 residents.

Recent reports organized by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center indicate that neighborhoods in New Orleans have seen increases in population since the 2010 census--even in the Lower Ninth Ward. Yet, out of 72 neighborhoods in the city, it still remains one of only three to have less than half the population it had prior to Katrina.

Wertman didn't target New Orleans solely for its displaced population, but also because the city has suffered from a variety of long-term issues.

After visiting the Lower Ninth Ward last summer, Wertman wasn't surprised with the amount of rebuilding that is needed but felt frustrated nevertheless.

"It's been eight years and the community is still kind of in shambles as a result of Hurricane Katrina," Wertman said.

Working alongside Wertman has been core group of about 20 students from the engineering and architecture schools at Penn State.

Conceptually, Apparatus X is designed into three zones: a live zone, a work zone and a flex zone.

The live space is a micro-living unit with the basic amenities such as a bed, shower, propane stove and bathroom.

The flex space is the middle portion of the trailer which serves as a social space and a place for collaboration between the response team and the community. The space is valuable because it provides additional workspace or living space when needed.

The work space, complete with a tooling area, tool storage and work table is the most expandable part of the trailer because it needs to have ample space in order to turn a parking lot or any open area into a work yard at a moment's notice.

While construction on the vehicle continues to progress, production of Apparatus X has seen its fair share of delays, due to Mother Nature.

One hindrance was the severe winter weather that plagued State College as well as a majority of the country. The project is based outdoors and there is no indoor workplace that the team could have moved the trailer.

Time that could've been used for welding and metal work or simply to repurpose older materials was lost.

"Obviously we can't work when it's raining or wet," Wertman said. "The fact that the project is outside was a challenge."

While Wertman and his team have received funding from corporate sponsors such as IBM and Boeing, they are still short of the desired $15,000 they hope to reach by May 2. The team has set up a donation page explaining the project.

"It's coming down to the time where all of the systems have to come together and all of the materials have to be purchased and funding is still... we're still a little worried about that," he said.

The intention is for Apparatus X to be completely self-sustaining. Due to this, the team has spent a fair amount of time on climactic research in the area for solar power potential and rainwater collection. Wertman said four of the students, who are participating in a capstone project, have researched rain-water levels for its water purification system.

Normal rainfall for August is around 5.92 inches in New Orleans and the monthly average year-round is 5.20 inches, so Wertman determined it is likely other water sources will be necessary. Of course, August also has the propensity to see more tropical storms and hurricanes.

The Atlantic Hurricane season typically runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Based on the early climate forecast, there are signs that the area from the Gulf Coast of New Orleans stretching up through the Atlantic Ocean to the Carolinas could be slightly more vulnerable. However, it's too early for anything conclusive.

"It's impossible to know for sure whether a specific coastal site is going to be impacted by a tropical storm or hurricane," said Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski.

Kottlowski added that while this season will be characterized as below normal in terms of the number of storms, all it takes is one to cause a tremendous amount of damage.

In the event that a hurricane would make landfall while he is in the area this summer, Wertman said the first line of defense would be the vehicle's mobility, and he would move to a safer location. If he weren't able to leave before a storm would hit, he said he's considering an anchoring mechanism.

While Apparatus X will eventually be donated to the community center, Wertman will still stay invested in the project even after he leaves New Orleans.

Long term, Wertman hopes that New Orleans is just the start. Currently, he views Apparatus X as more of prototype and that there can be many of these types of vehicles used in disaster relief situations around the country.

He hopes that things will go well enough to potentially pitch ideas for new response vehicles to large RV manufacturers or government organizations such as FEMA.

"I don't think that it ends at New Orleans," Wertman said. "I think it's the beginning of an idea, and that it's the first version of this type of vehicle."